Microsoft's popular shooter series extends to a new genre with Gears Tactics.
Xbox's iconic cover-based shooter is switching gears for its next big release. Developers The Coalition and Splash Damage are launching a new strategy game set in the Gears of War universe called Gears Tactics. It arrives at the end of April for PC (and eventually on Xbox One), and is a canonical entry in the series. This is the first non-shooter release in the Gears series since the mobile game Gears Pop. It's a big change of pace for the franchise, and GameSpot recently had the opportunity to check out some gameplay and speak with one of the lead developers to find out more.
Note: Due to current circumstances relating to COVID-19, this preview session was conducted over Discord. GameSpot got to see a live demo but was not able to play directly. As such, this is more of an overview of what was seen, than an impressions piece.
What It's All About
Gears Tactics is a turn-based strategy game developed by Gears 5 multiplayer studio Splash Damage in collaboration with main series developer The Coalition. The game was conceived as a way for Microsoft to extend the Gears franchise beyond its traditional home on console, and try to break into a new market by entering the strategy genre. The studio tells GameSpot that it understands PC is the platform of choice for many, and launching Gears Tactics as a PC-first game (featuring robust graphical and accessibility options) is an effort to address this gap.
Gears Tactics is a single-player only game that describes itself as "faster, more open, and intense" than other strategy games on the market. There is no grid, and you don't move square-to-square. Instead, players can freely navigate the map each turn using three actions--moving, shooting, or executing a skill. The Coalition describes Gears Tactics as a more action-oriented title than other strategy offerings, which is fitting for the traditionally action-heavy Gears series. There are numerous enemies per encounter, and this is meant to hearken back to the main Gears franchise where enemies come at you relentlessly. There are plenty of enemies you may remember, including Wretches and Brumaks who act and attack like series fans would expect, as well as at least one enemy that is brand-new to the Gears universe--the Disciple.
In the few missions I saw, Gears Tactics looks fantastic in terms of visuals and gameplay (but again, I only saw a handful of missions and I was not playing). I'm not a veteran strategy game player, so I was coming to Gears Tactics with fresh eyes to an extent. Based on what I've seen in the hour-long presentation that spanned two sections of a campaign and an epic boss battle, though, Gears Tactics seems to contain the major hallmarks of Gears of War. There are brutal, gore-filled, curb-stomping executions; the Lancer chainsaw is back and it's a ripper yet again; you can slide into cover; andover-sized, muscly characters are everywhere you look. The maps are set in destroyed cities with dark and gloomy visuals, and there are emergence holes that pop up, with hordes of enemies crawling out. In short, Gears Tactics appears to retain the aesthetics that make Gears memorable and moves it into an entirely new genre.
The move to strategy might seem like an odd or unexpected jump for Gears of War, which has for years relied on the more personal, in-your-face mechanics of shooter games. But moving to a strategy game actually makes a lot of sense for Gears. The franchise has always trended towards tactics and strategy, even as a shooter, with players needing to jump into cover and consider the position of teammates and enemies constantly. Now from a top-down perspective, Gears Tactics gives you a new sense of control and direction over your troops.
My time with Gears Tactics was limited to viewing a few missions and one boss battle, with the gameplay controlled by The Coalition's publishing design lead Tyler Bielman, so I didn't have a chance to play for myself. At first blush, Gears Tactics is at least looking like a Gears game that fans of the series should be interested in.
The Meta Game And Weapons
Gears Tactics features light RPG mechanics that reward players for spending time in the game and completing challenges to earn more skills and abilities. There are five classes and 30 skills in all, while each character has a signature weapon. The weapons also have modification slots, while armor, too, can be augmented with new stats and skills. All of this is unlocked by gameplay, as there are no microtransactions in the game (more on that later).
Ripping an enemy apart with the chainsaw is every bit as brutal as you remember, as are Gears of War's other trademark executions. Performing one of these gory finishing moves rewards your entire squad with another move. It's a risk/reward action, however, as performing an execution requires you to be melee distance from your opponent, which can leave you exposed. Gears of War's trademark frag and stim grenades also come over from the main series, and they work the same way.
There are also more characters that can be recruited into your squad over time, and the few I saw seemed to be diverse and unique in their appearance and tone.
Gears Tactics follows the soldier Gabe Diaz. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Gabe is the father of Kate Diaz, who is the protagonist of Gears 5. The game takes place 10 years before the events of Gears of War 1. The story is canon, and this could have interesting implications for the wider lore. People who played Gears 5 know that Kait is not exactly all she seems to be. She's grappling with forces bigger than herself, and she's struggling to understand where she comes from and who she is. Without giving too much away, The Coalition tells GameSpot that Gears Tactics' story will provide new insight on Kait's origins, and that's exciting to think about for fans eager for more details after Gears 5.
The story in Gears Tactics is an "against-all-odds" narrative in which Gabe and his fellow squadmates fight against a bad guy named Ukkan. He is described as the ultimate villain, with The Coalition saying he is "the monster who creates monsters." There are also going to be twists and turns throughout the story to keep players on guessing.
You might recognize Gabe's voice, too. That's because he is voiced by Noshir Dalal, who voiced the memorable Red Dead Redemption 2 main character Charles Smith.
Why It's Single-Player Only
Gears Tactics does not have any multiplayer. It is strictly a single-player game. Bielman tells GameSpot that this was the plan from the beginning, and the developer never wavered.
"The initial pitch was for single-player and it stayed that way throughout. We prioritized the most important pillars of the game and focused the team on the most important features," he said. "We absolutely had to get the single-player experience right. We wanted to ensure that we could tell a real Gears story and have real Gears combat within the turn-based genre first and foremost."
How Long Is The Campaign?
In terms of the length of the standard campaign, players can expect it to run for around 25 hours on the middle difficulty setting, but this is just the start. The game appears to have a lot of replayability with its Veteran Mode that features "remixed" missions that include special modifiers that keep things fresh each time you play. Additionally, there is an Ironman mode that promises to offer up a huge challenge for those really looking for a kick in the teeth.
"Being turn-based, the game can vary a lot in terms of 'clock time,' as different players will spend differing amounts of time working out their strategies," Bielman says. "Our latest estimates from testing put the game at about 25 hours when playing in the Intermediate difficulty setting. After the Campaign, you can play Veteran Mode. Veteran Mode will remix missions for the player, including mission modifiers (like bonus damage, or penalties to accuracy) and optional objectives that grant additional rewards. You can go on these additional missions to continue leveling up your units and earning the rarest equipment in the game. There is no fixed endpoint for Veteran Mode. We’re excited to see how far players can go."
Like most PC games, Gears Tactics will have a range of different settings that players can tweak to their liking. These include volumetric fog, planar reflections, glossy reflections, and screen space reflections. There are also sliders for world detail and dynamic shadows, while players can also change the contact shadows and shadow resolutions, among other things.
Gears Tactics also supports a number of different accessibility features, including a colorblind mode and a narrator who will read every menu for players, as well as keyboard and gamepad bindings.
In terms of specs, Bielman tells GameSpot that Gears Tactics has been optimized to run on a variety of machines; you can see the full system requirements here on Steam.
The Impact Of Launching On Xbox Game Pass For PC
Gears Tactics is coming to PC as a standard full-price game on Windows or Steam, and also through Xbox Game Pass for PC. Subscribers can get the game at no extra cost. Bielman tells GameSpot that launching with Xbox Game Pass for PC should help the game reach the widest possible audience, which has been the developer's goal from the beginning.
"The mandate of our publishing team here at The Coalition is to expand the reach of the Gears of War franchise. That’s why we decided to make a PC title that could reach a huge audience and publish on a variety of platforms," Bielman said. "For the traditional Gears fans, we believe they will be really happy with the way that Gears combat, weapons, and enemies have been interpreted into Gears Tactics. For strategy fans, we have a deep tactical gameplay and metagame that will challenge them. For RPG fans, the classes and skill system will feel very familiar. Launching with Xbox Game Pass for PC allows us a new entry point for both players of turn-based strategy games and fans of the Gears of War franchise. Anyone new to Gears can also go back and experience more titles from the Gears of War catalog. Xbox Game Pass for PC includes Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Gears of War 4, and Gears 5."
No Microtransactions Or Pay-To-Win
Unlike many other AAA games, including Gears 5, Gears Tactics will not feature any microtransactions whatsoever. The game includes treasure chests to find and unlock during combat scenarios, but these are not available to buy for real money. The Coalition promises that every upgrade and item in the game is available to unlock through gameplay. This was already confirmed by Rod Fergusson in 2019, but The Coalition re-confirmed this to GameSpot.
Impact Of COVID-19
Gears Tactics is one of the many games currently in development during the COVID-19 crisis where developers are working from home in the interest of protecting their health and safety. The Coalition confirmed that Gears Tactics has not been significantly impacted by this new work-from-home strategy, in part because the game has been "content complete" for a while already. The developer has spent recent weeks fixing the last remaining bugs and getting the game through certification. The studio told GameSpot that Microsoft has done a great job at creating the necessary infrastructure to allow its developers to work from home with minimal interruption. Additionally, Microsoft has essentially been working on Gears Tactics on a remote basis already, as the main development work was done by Splash Damage in the UK.
"We've been in development for four-and-a-half years. It's been a really long development cycle as we've taken our time to make it perfect for PC gamers," Bielman says. "The game is effectively complete. We've been working on the last bugs, getting through certification. So the reality is, at this moment in time, we have engineers working from home. Our IT department was incredible at getting everyone hooked up. And everyone is really moving at a good velocity, on a bunch of different projects. But in terms of this particular game, we're right at the last sprint toward the finish line, so there really isn't a ton of engineering going on right now apart from critical bug fixes. And all of those will be handled perfectly by the engineering team working from home."
Xbox Version Is Coming
While Gears Tactics has only been officially announced for PC (it will be available on Steam and the Windows Store, as well as through Xbox Game Pass for PC), The Coalition confirmed to GameSpot that an Xbox version is indeed coming. The developer pointed out that a certain person who is no longer with the company (Rod Fergusson) actually let the existence of the Xbox One version slip in 2019. The company had no further comment on when the Xbox One version will release or any details about it, but console fans can rest assured it is coming.
"The console version is incoming. Absolutely we have confirmed that there will be a console release," Bielman said.
Everyone who pre-orders Gears Tactics for PC will receive the "Thrashball Cole" character pack, which brings Augustus Cole into the game with his unique Thrashball armor set that features unspecified "rare" abilities. For those new to Gears, Augustus "Cole Train" Cole is a main character in the Gears universe who joined the military after a successful run playing professional Thrashball.
Release Date And Platforms
Gears Tactics is coming to PC on April 28. It will be available through the Windows Store and Steam for $60 USD. Additionally, Xbox Game Pass for PC subscribers can get the game at no extra cost. When the game eventually comes to Xbox One, it will also be available through Xbox Game Pass, considering all first-party games are included with the program.